European Capitals of Culture 2015: Mons and Plzen

Mons & Plzen

European Capitals of Culture 2015: Mons and Plzen

In 1983 the famous Greek acress, singer, and at that time the country’s Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, proposed that an annual programme should be established whereby the richness of the European culture could be displayed and enhanced. With Mercouri’s input the European Union (EU) since 1985 then introduced what has become known as the European Capital of Culture programme, whereby this accolade was annually designated to one or more cities.

Some of the criteria stated by the EU on its website for this initiative is that the designated cities “must highlight the richness and diversity of cultures of Europe”, that the appointment “must increase European citizen’s sense of belonging to a common cultural area”, and that it “must foster the contribution of culture to the further development of the cities”. The EU also states that this programme has not only immensely contributed to regenerate the appointed cities, but has also breathed new life into their culture and raised the international profile of the cities in such a way that they ultimately became favourite tourist destinations.

The first city to be appointed was the Greek capital Athens (1985). Thereafter cities like Florence (1986), Amsterdam (1987), West Berlin (1988) and Paris (1989) followed. In later years more than one city were annually appointed, like Rotterdam and Porto (2001), or even three in 2010, namely Essen, Pécs and Istanbul.

For 2015 two cities share the designation, namely Mons (also called Bergen in Flemish) in the Wallonian region of Belgium, and Plzeň (also spelled Pilsen) in the Czech Republic. In both of the cities the cultural programmes are already in full swing, atrtacting many visitors; the expectation is that about 2 million will visit each during the year. We can with confidence recommend that travellers to those regions attempt to include visits to these two special cities when compiling their itineraries, and would like to assist in such a venture.

Mons: The main theme of Mons’s year long programme is “Where technology meets culture”. Two of the interesting projects are:

  • “Metro IT Europa”, an immense exhibition of contemporary art along four metro lines in collaboration with major European digital art institutions, showcasing the simbiotic relationship between art and technology. Through hotspots along the way visitors are able to gain access to the digital artworks by way of their smartphones or tablets.
  • “Café Europa”digitally connects Mons with other places in Europe, creating the opportunity of interacting with one another.

The opening ceremony was held on 24 January 2015, with some 100 000 visitors attending. Apart from presenting themes such as those mentioned above, more than 300 events will be presented, attended by thousands of artists and other participants in categories like theatre, dance, music, literature, gastronomy, fashion and design, whilst special exhibitions and programmes are offered at the city’s museums and galleries. Just one of these special exhibitions, running until May 17, is “Van Gogh in Borinage, the birth of an artist”, where he resided as an evangelist, before giving up this career to become an artist,

Even without these events Mons itself is more than worth a visit. Besides having three UNESCO cultural heritage listings, namely its 87 meters high 17th century baroque belfry with a 49 bell carillon, the nearby Neolitic mines, as well as the Doudo Festival originating from the 14th century, its historic richness can be seen in its architecture, like the 17th century St Waudru Cathedral and the narrow pedestrian streets of the central core with its Grand Place.

Mons is furthermore known as where the battle in which the British Army participated in World War I during August of 1914 took place. Several memorials to this battle is to be found in the city, especially at the entrance of its Gothic town hall.

Plzeň: This city, the fourth largest in the Czech Republic, is the capital of the West Bohemia region of the country. It has a rich cultural and industrial history, with a vibrant student life and long-time relationships with many European countries. Under the slogan “Opening up” it presents many cultural programmes and flagship projects throughout the year, with not only a high number of European artists participating, but also the citizens interplaying with them. Two of the 50 main projects are:

  • “The New Circus Season”, whereby Europe’s top circuses will be performing spectacular shows throughout the year.
  • The so-called “Trnka/Pixar” project through which different exhibitions showcase the development of film animation and puppetry through the ages.

The gala opening ceremony took place on 17 January 2015, which is be followed throughout the year with more than 600 events n various categories such as theatre, dance, concerts, contemporary circus, and educational programmes all over the city, whilst also focussing on three topics typical of the region, namely art in the landscape, industrial heritage and baroque monuments.

Close co-operation exists between Mons and Plzeň, resulting in joint projects and the exchange of artists.

Plzeň is probably best known world-wide as the city which introduced the world to the clear, golden Pilsner beer first brewed there in 1842 by the Bavarian brewer Josef Groll. The name “Pilsner Bier” is a registered trade mark for this popular style of beer, with the trade mark Pilsner Urquell today to be seen in many countries.

Just like Mons, Plzeň can be a tourist destination in itself, boasting prominent sights such as the 13th century Gothic St. Bartholomew Cathedral, with a 103 meters tower, the highest in the country, the great Moorish Revival Synagogue, the second largest in Europe, as well as the kilometers long medieval tunnel network under the city. The city’s main Republic Square, with its historic Old Town Hall, is also one of the largest in the country. Apart from its historic and architectural sights, the numerous bars and restaurants ensure a gastronomic delight for the visitor. A visit to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery is a must.

Manie Wolvaardt